This fall marks the 25th anniversary of the release of The Shawshank Redemption. Twenty-five years later, it’s hard to believe this beloved movie, directed by Frank Darabont (The Green Mile), was a box-office flop in 1994. Today it resides atop many “best movie ever” lists—including mine.
There’s a lot to love about Shawshank. I could write endless pages about the acting, music, cinematography, direction, and so on. But while these are all worthy topics, I’m most interested in the film’s Christian symbolism. From start to finish, intended or unintended, it is saturated with Christian imagery and themes.
With “redemption” in its very title, the film seems to invite a Christian interpretation. And though in general we should be cautious about stretching for theological parallels and “Christ figures” in movies, it’s also worth celebrating when a movie reminds us of the beauty of the Christian narrative. And that’s exactly the sort of beauty I see in Shawshank.
Consider how the “redemption” drama of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) reflects certain aspects of Jesus’s story.
Andy enters the world of Shawshank Prison as an outsider. Red (Morgan Freeman), who becomes Andy’s friend, observes of Andy: “He had a quiet way about him, a walk and a talk that just wasn’t normal around here. He strolled like a man in a park without a care or worry. Like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from this place.” The whole story is told through Red’s point of view and becomes his testimony about Andy.
Andy is quickly adopted into Red’s friend group, and he begins discipling Red and the gang. Andy teaches them there’s something much better than their bleak surroundings. One especially powerful example finds Andy broadcasting Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” over the PA system to the whole prison. Describing this moment, Red reflects: “I tell you, those voices soared. Higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.”
Of course, Andy’s ministry to the prisoners is not without danger. Early on, he is harassed by the demonic Bogs (Mark Rolston). The pharisaical warden (Bob Gunton) refuses to see Andy for who he is, and seeks to use him for his own personal benefit. Even in the face of opposition, Andy teaches his disciples to embrace hope. Andy’s training culminates later in the story when he writes to Red: “Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
As the story progresses, we learn Andy has been imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. When circumstances reach their grimmest, Andy “dies” (so to speak), descending to the depths of the sewer pipes, before resurrecting on the other side as a free man (as Peter Stevens). Red, the warden, and the guards visit Andy’s cell, expecting to find a dead body. Instead they find an empty cell. This prompts a guard to cry, “Oh my holy God!” Andy’s apparent defeat of death gives renewed hope to the prisoners, and it prompts Red to finally repent of his sins in front of the parole board, resulting in his freedom. In the final scene we see Red next to the Pacific Ocean—a place where sins are remembered no more—and Andy is there too, welcoming him into paradise.
I first saw Shawshank when I was 12 and immediately liked it. I enjoyed it for its pure entertainment value, but also observed that it had a deeper meaning. At 12, I was quite proud of myself that I knew this movie was not just about a prison break; it was about hope. But even then I knew “hope” is rather vague and rudderless without something firm to be grounded in. It wasn’t until college that I discovered the sort of sturdy hope Scripture describes: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (1 Pet. 1:3–4).
With each subsequent viewing of Shawshank, I’m reminded of this living hope—recalling both the prison of my sin and also the prospect of freedom found in my Savior.
With every viewing of Shawshank, I’m reminded of this living hope—recalling both the prison of my sin and also the prospect of freedom found in my Savior.
I’m not a “cryer,” but I well up every time at the end of this film. As the dramatic music gently crescendos, Red says:
I find I am so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it is the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. . . . I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. . . . I hope.
I love how Morgan Freeman delivers these lines. There’s a longing in Red’s voice. He certainly wishes for these things to be true. Yet, there’s also a confidence. He ends by saying, “I hope.” It’s not merely an aspiration; it’s a declaration.
The next time you watch Shawshank, let it preach. Let its magnificent redemption story point you to the ultimate redemption story of the resurrected Christ—the greatest prison break of all time.